Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

America’s National Embarrassment

Why is the rest of the world so much better at signing up the vote?

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images

One of the biggest takeaways from last year's U.S. presidential election had little to do with campaigning: Winning votes, it seems, requires signing them up first. Last November's election saw turnout rise among Hispanic, Black, and young voters, new census data shows -- gains made possible by huge increases in registration rates. And those newbie voters played a key role in the outcome. 

What's more surprising, however, is that nearly 30 percent of all eligible Americans still aren't registered. Nine million U.S. citizens couldn't get on the voting rolls because of registration deadlines, and another two to three million couldn't cast ballots that counted toward the outcome because of registration problems, according to a recent Harvard-MIT study. And our recent research for the Brennan Center for Justice, a public policy and law institute at New York University School of Law, offers a clue as to why: an outdated voter registration system. Compared with other democracies, the United States' system for signing up to vote is a national embarrassment.

Just compare the U.S. registration rate to that of other democracies: In Argentina, 100 percent of eligible voters are registered. Britain boasts a 97 percent registration rate. Canada registers more than 93 percent of eligible citizens, and other major democracies -- Australia, France, Germany, and Indonesia -- manage to sign up more than 90 percent of all potential voters.

One of the biggest takeaways from last year’s U.S. presidential election had little to do with campaigning: Winning votes, it seems, requires signing them up first. Last November’s election saw turnout rise among Hispanic, Black, and young voters, new census data shows — gains made possible by huge increases in registration rates. And those newbie voters played a key role in the outcome. 

What’s more surprising, however, is that nearly 30 percent of all eligible Americans still aren’t registered. Nine million U.S. citizens couldn’t get on the voting rolls because of registration deadlines, and another two to three million couldn’t cast ballots that counted toward the outcome because of registration problems, according to a recent Harvard-MIT study. And our recent research for the Brennan Center for Justice, a public policy and law institute at New York University School of Law, offers a clue as to why: an outdated voter registration system. Compared with other democracies, the United States’ system for signing up to vote is a national embarrassment.

Just compare the U.S. registration rate to that of other democracies: In Argentina, 100 percent of eligible voters are registered. Britain boasts a 97 percent registration rate. Canada registers more than 93 percent of eligible citizens, and other major democracies — Australia, France, Germany, and Indonesia — manage to sign up more than 90 percent of all potential voters.

What is America doing wrong?

The first clue is who is in charge of ensuring that voters get on the list. The United States is one of the few democracies that place the entire burden of voter registration on individual citizens. In our recent study, we found that the opposite was true in nearly all of the democracies in our 16-country survey. Britain, for example, conducts an "annual canvass" to add new voters to the rolls and update existing records. Local election officials mail canvass forms to each household and go door-to-door to collect them.

Technology has much to do with the U.S. backwardness as well. In Argentina, for example, local election officials add eligible voters to the rolls from a national list of all citizens maintained by a federal agency. Voters don’t need to register because they are already permanently included on a constantly updated civil registry.

If the United States wants to catch up, its northern neighbor might offer the best model. Federal election officials in Canada routinely gather information on eligible voters from 40 different government agencies, including the federal tax and citizenship authorities and provincial departments of motor vehicles. If information is missing, election officials contact individuals directly. Interagency data-sharing accounts for 90 percent of all additions and updates to Canada’s voter list, and the country’s 93 percent registration rate is a testament to its success. Voters inadvertently left off the list can remedy the problem before — and on — Election Day.

Canada’s move to a data-sharing system was relatively inexpensive. The total cost of developing its federal voter database and its data-sharing system — one that includes more than 23 million voters — cost 19.2 million Canadian dollars (about U.S. $17.65 million). In the United States, every state already has a voter registration database with data-sharing capabilities, so setting up secure partnerships with other agen­cies would be the only big cost.

If the United States were to emulate Canada, it could mean an additional 50 to 65 million voters on the rolls. Of course, getting them to turn out on Election Day would be another story. But at least then one could know who’s missing.

Wendy Weiser is director of the voting rights and election project at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law.
Margaret Chen is research associate at the center and contributor to Expanding Democracy: Voter Registration Around the World, by Jennifer Rosenberg.

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